This year, during the 2021 return of Monterey Car Week — the spectacle surrounding the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance — Acura revealed the NSX Type S, a higher-performance, limited-edition version of the brand's incredible and, by many accounts, under-appreciated second-generation supercar. The Type S will be the current NSX's swan song, as its production run comes to an end in 2022, but that won't be the end of Acura's fun cars; immediately following the NSX Type S reveal, Acura vice president and brand officer Jon Ikeda surprised the crowd with the news that Acura will bring back its cult-classic Integra in 2022 after a 15-plus year hiatus.
That's a lot of news to pack into a few short minutes — and it bears unpacking.
The underappreciated second-generation NSX was a groundbreaking supercar: when it debuted in 2016 it utilized a hybrid powertrain and all-wheel-drive setup, bucking the trend of internal-combustion, rear-wheel-drive supercars. The first-generation 1990 NSX was also unconventional at the time, in that it was motivated by a small V6 in contrast to the snarly V8s that powered its peers, and was constructed largely of aluminum rather than the industry-standard steel. In those ways, both iterations of the NSX were ahead of their time; these days, hybrid performance is quickly taking over the industry, while all-wheel-drive is without question considered a go-to platform.
And that brings us to the Integra. The original Integra was beloved for its tossable handling; it was small and lightweight, with a high-revving internal-combustion four-cylinder and front-wheel-drive. But Acura is still mum on important aspects of the new Integra. What will its new generation look like? Will Acura's trend-bucking trend live on in the Integra, or for that matter in the company's future vehicles?
After successfully predicting the future of automotive performance multiple times, Acura could continue to break the mold with its near- and far-future offerings — or just as easily rest on its laurels and churn out more conventional offerings. To see if we could find out more, I spoke with Jon Ikeda, a 32-year Acura veteran, and department head of Acura product planning Rob Keough to learn what Acura has learned from its past — and what we can expect to see from the company down the road.
Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
GP: While the latest NSX is laden with incredibly capable, forward-thinking tech and design, supercar customers seem to desire more conventional products–as evidenced by low sales numbers. How does Acura interpret NSX sales performance and customer feedback?
Rob Keough: Firstly, every NSX owner we have spoken to loves their car — and a primary reason they choose it over other supercars is the fact that it is unconventional. The same can be said for many first-gen owners as well. [NSX] has never been about selling the most units, or appealing to the broadest audience. If that were the goal, we would certainly take a more conventional approach.
Both generations of NSX were ahead of their time in many respects, and ushered in a new era of performance for sports cars and supercars. The [first-generation] NSX showed that we could build an exotic sports car to match the best cars of its day in performance and exclusivity, while delivering the everyday driveability and reliability that Acuras are known for. For the [second-generation] NSX, we didn’t look to recreate the first car, although some fans wanted this. Instead, we looked forward to what we anticipated to be the future of performance: electrification.
A decade ago, NSX was conceived as the first hybrid electric supercar. Showcasing the best of what Honda Motor had learned from years of development and production of electrified vehicles as well as decades of commitment to motorsports. The NSX demonstrated the capabilities of electrified performance and multi-motor torque vectoring in a way that is thrilling and rewarding for all drivers — novice and F1 champs alike.
Jon Ikeda: The thing with the NSX in general is...we're a fun-to-drive company at heart. About eight, nine years ago, the CEO...saw environmental issues coming on the horizon, he saw electrification coming. We're the number one engine builder in the world, and he was looking at a future that might not have so many engines in it. So when you peel all that back...that was a very honest effort on his part to say we need to focus on what we do best and what we like best.
I can be honest with you — a lot of people questioned [making a hybrid NSX]. When we first came out with it in 2015, a lot of people questioned it. Now, just six years later, it seems like a no-brainer. [But back then] trying to convince journalists to say, this is a future thing we need to look into — there was a lot of pushback on it.
I think [Acura] came up with a car that was extremely unique, and it wasn't meant to be a high-volume thing as much as telling ourselves that the future was going to be good. And to showcase our efforts that we're going to continue to build a path where we make fun-to-drive vehicles...better than we did before. We're in this really weird time, this transition time.
GP: Do lackluster NSX sales put more pressure on future products?
JI: Electricity and electric vehicles and the transition is happening super-quickly now. So how much longer is hybrid going to be relevant? I have no idea. For us, once again, the [NSX sales] volume wasn't the focus. It's a car [that proves] we can make fun things. The numbers that people talk about — it's a very small group [of owners] and a very select group, which in the supercar world isn't such a bad thing.
It's one of these cars that you really believe when you go back in the history of things that you're gonna find these key vehicles. The first-generation NSX was one of those key vehicles that kind of shifted what a sports car could be and could do. You put the first-generation car next to other sports cars that were coming out at the time, all you have to do is get into one —[even today] it's still the business. I really believe that the second-generation NSX is going to be like that. When you look back at history, [the second-gen NSX] was also before its time. I just don't see it as a failure...I think in the long scheme of things, I think generation two, like generation one, will be one of these "shift' cars that came out at a time when not everyone else was jumping on the wagon. It's one of these "shift" vehicles that led the way.
RK: There’s always pressure when reviving a nameplate as iconic as Integra. But it all goes back to the objectives, and Integra has a much different role in the lineup compared to NSX. Our vision is clear and like the original, the new Integra will absolutely deliver on the fundamentals of "Precision Crafted Performance." Of course, every Acura fan has their own idea of what Integra should and shouldn’t be. I, for one, am extremely happy with what we have coming. Can’t wait to tell you more.
GP: A dedicated Honda EV platform is still several years away. How does that affect near-term products like the Integra?
JI: We're working with our partners right now—that's no secret. One thing I can assure you is that Honda and R&D are deep into what we need to be working on in the context of the commitment to electrification. Our CEO has not been shy at all about what he wants to accomplish. There's a lot of effort, a lot of people working to make that a reality right now.
GP: What I hear you saying is, people may have not been ready for Acura's prescience in the past. Do you think they're ready for things coming down the road?
JI: The innovator has to take the risk. We kind of pride ourselves as a company of innovation. [Honda was selling] an electric car—the EV Plus—back in 1997. We were hanging out with General Motors even then; we saw electricity as an option. When you put yourself out as an innovation company, you have to come out early. And sometimes it's absolutely perfect, or sometimes you're a little oto early. Whether it's hybrid or the [Honda] Insight and, you know, fuel cells now–with [the Honda] Clarity, we were out there before anyone.
We're a little bit ahead of the game sometimes, but that's what we have to do; we can't shy away from it. We like our traditional things too, don't get me wrong. I can tell you we like 8,000-rpm cars too, and manual transmissions. I think there's a lot of people at Honda that love that tradition. But when you push the envelope, you're always going to be ahead of the game a little bit. And it takes time for things to become more normal. But like I said, the pace of the acceptance of electric cars is staggering to me, how fast things have progressed.
GP: Do you think that all new Acura products are pushing the envelope as hard as every other one?
JI: I think some more than the others. A halo car like the NSX has to be, because it's the guiding light. But you talk about the Integra—that's kind of going back to nostalgia too, right? And there's a level of expectation there, and there's a lot of familiarity there—we want the fuzzy feelings of the past there too. But at the heart of it all, whether it's the NSX or all the way to a simpler version of an entry-level car, we have to have fun-to-drive baked into our brand.
We used to talk about engine efficiencies and CO2 emissions and all those things that are part of our history, because we care about the environment — we've always cared about the environment. But once you delve into zero emissions, you can't compete against zero…at that point, what are you known for? Honda has always been a fun-to-own, fun-to-use, fun-to-drive, enjoyable, easy-to-get-along-with type of brand. Acura is just a little more performance on top of it. And we have to make sure to [find how] to express that. We do have some breadth of products in the lineup to work with, but we are foundationally tied down to the fun-to-drive aspect.
Q: You recently told The Drive that "NSX always comes along when Acura has something fun to say." So, what is Acura saying next? And when are you going to say it?
JI: I can tell you from my experience, there will be a time for another NSX. The CEO at that time is going to say "it's time to put the bat signal up" or whatever it is, to get focused again to do what we need to be doing. I don't know what the environment will be like then. We've done it twice that way, and I'm confident that as long as this company is around there is going to be an NSX that comes and goes. That's the kind of product that it is. Some car makers have a particular make that they just keep evolving forever, but I don't see NSX being that type of thing. I talked about this with the NSX Club of America people–the first one might have been Captain America, this last one may have been Iron Man, the next one may be the Hulk. I have no idea. But it's going to be an amazing thing, and it's going to be pushing forward whatever narrative we feel we need to be pushing to look at it and feel confident about going that direction with the company.